When I was in my early teens, I read the historical novel The Utmost Island by Henry Myers. It tells the story of the Norsemen Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson, and the colonizing of Iceland. I was initially drawn to it because, with my Scandinavian heritage, I was fascinated by the Vikings.
But what made a profound and life-changing impression on me was the book’s description of the cultural and linguistic meaning behind the phrase, “I give you my word.”
In the story, the Vikings believed that their word was inextricably linked to their being. So, when they gave their word to someone, they were giving part of their essence into the keeping of that person.
Not only did that require a significant act of faith, it also meant that if they were to go back on their word, they would lose that part of themselves forever. Their soul would dim, and they would live a hollowed life as a kind of walking dead.
So, they didn’t give their word lightly and, once given, they didn’t betray it.
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
That’s the oath that U.S. Senators swear on taking office. Additionally, this is what they swore at the beginning of the impeachment trial of President Trump:
I solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be,) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: so help me God.
I can’t say whether the Senators who blocked witnesses or documents from being brought into evidence in the trial have lost a part of themselves forever, or whether they will now live a hollowed life as a kind of walking dead.
But those 51 Senators did go back on their word. They broke the oaths they took, and it leaves a hollow feeling, like a death in the family.
I was 67 years old when my father died last July. And yet part of me was stunned and sobered by the realization that I would no longer have him to turn to when I wanted the advice or perspective of a parent. His leadership, in the familiar way, was ended. I was now the adult in the room.
The Senate’s decision to conduct a trial without witnesses has done the same thing. More than the final verdict, their vote to deny witnesses or documents ended their leadership in the familiar way. They will continue to walk the halls of Congress. They will continue to say their “Yays” and “Nays.” But there will be no strength behind them.
The Senators proved they’re incapable of leading—not in the mechanics of legislation, but in the real work of leading by example, of living with integrity, and of keeping their word.
And so we have to step into our own leadership.
Our living example, our integrity and our word were never dependent on our elected officials. But just as adult children still sometimes turn to their parents for guidance, we sometimes turn to those officials for some semblance of leadership.
That leadership is dead. If we want our lives to reflect our values, it’s up to us to live that way. We’re the adults in the room. We’re the leaders of our own lives. Of course, that’s always been the case, but sometimes it takes the shock of death to awaken some parts of ourselves and to get a larger majority of who we are as a person to step up.
My heart is broken…and breaking open. There is deep and piercing sadness in the wake of this vote. But there is also hope. If it helps us to remember our own leadership, discover new ways to embody that leadership, and learn how best to express that leadership, our lives and the world will be better for it.
We can lead. And we can vote.